The Limits of Honesty in Writing

TRUTH, LIKE WEATHER, arrives in degrees. Just as the weather is all around, so too dishonesty in writing. Indeed, the taking of the media’s temperatures is a primary moral responsibility of the modern reader. The question which confronts us is how do we read well in an age where dishonesty on many of the important topics may be taken for granted.

Note that by dishonesty I do not refer only, or even especially, to a malicious will to deceive. A lie requires calculated effort, but one may be rendered dishonest by upbringing, acculturation, and by long association with a cause or group. Often the limits of one’s partisan worldview are at least partially buried and therefore a matter of unconsciousness. Even when this is not so, dishonesty can be a product of circumstances that are not necessarily venal. It may be taken for granted that the President’s speechwriter will not serve an indictment of the administration, even if the evidence leads all honest persons to expect it. The spokesperson for a pro-choice group will probably not be at leisure to say perhaps the anti-abortionists are on to something. Likewise the Pope will not dwell on the good reasons for skepticism, and the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations will never observe in public the uncontroversial truth that attacking the government only gets you so far.

Are these people being dishonest? Yes and no. Any honest writer knows there are topics on which he simply cannot be completely truthful. These include many aspects of his personal life, such as marriage and children, of which one is wise to remain for the most part silent — not for his own sake, but for that of the people closest to him. At one step’s remove from this are those topics which touch directly upon economic interests.

Then there are ideological commitments which make it unlikely for a writer to observe facts readily available to his critics and enemies. It is not usually the case that the truth of a question is at the midpoint of opposing views, or else a computer could tell us where lay the objective reality. Even if it were so, often it is difficult to feel the truth of opposing viewpoints. That is why on the anti-war left you rarely see the plain fact noted that the United States remains an inspiration for democratic movements around the world, and on the pro-business right you almost never hear anyone admitting that prosperity in North America requires that the capitalist class sustain an effective system of exploiting what are termed the developing nations.

It would be interesting to read the newspaper produced with all of the above constraints having been removed. Some writers would produce a very different piece of writing from their usual, and some would look much the same as they do now — and the difference would show to what degree a submerged fixation or prejudice steered them off course, like the stubborn wheel of a shopping cart. In an earlier age, a critic might consider it enough to determine a person’s economic interests and then to assume his writing was little more than a shield of these interests against the threat of opposing ideas and institutions. (The term for this approach is of course “vulgar Marxism.”) In reality however the most intractable prejudices are probably of the sentimental sort, which is why people who have no personal interest in the Middle East conflict may take strong and partisan positions. Also for this reason it is hard to find a writer who can both support Israel’s rights and security unreservedly while condemning the cruder manifestations of Zionism. In the Middle East as a whole, that sort of honesty (and it would not even be seen as such by many writers) is simply impossible.

The best way to gauge to what degree a writer is lying is to assemble in one’s mind the evidence against him, and to observe how far he goes in devising ways not to notice this evidence. A writer who is unwilling to admit the plain facts which threaten his claims will have no option but to take a dishonest position whenever writing about topics in which a certain outcome is felt to be required. I submit that you won’t get anything near an honest account about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from someone who cannot accept that a) American foreign policy has done enormous damage around the world, and b) a more “western” style government represents an objective advancement as against the regimes of  Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

Very rarely does a writer consciously lie. Usually one’s prejudices are too familiar and broken-in to be seen for what they are, a kind of cherished mental possession, like one’s tattered college sweater. Also, the requirements of modern newspapers work against nuanced writing. One has at most a few hours to produce on a topic, and even if one were able to produce it, an article that is more than a few hundred words in length is not likely to be printed. The result is that most events are given only a cursory examination, and that oversimplification necessarily occurs. This is a passive form of dishonesty, more institutional than personal. It is probably also the most common.

I doubt I have ever written a piece for a newspaper that stated everything on a topic I felt could, or even should, be said. I’ll here note a few accusations I routinely encounter, tossed at me by readers who devise clever theories to discredit the way in which I write. They are as follows: I am paid to take a certain position; my editors force me to write as I do; I am hiding my private interests, which compel me to argue a position as I do; I am the ignorant hostage to a political party/ideology/camp/interest group.

The first is easy enough to demolish. I receive no pay either from the National Post or the Huffington Post. If I had to live on the earnings of my editorials, I would be homeless. As for the second, that an editor looks over my shoulder, my writing receives little editing. Most of what I produce goes forward as I wrote it. (Note: the headlines of newspapers are written by a headline editor, not by the author. It is amusing how regularly readers take an exception to a headline and attack me for it.) The case of my private interests and politics is more doubtful, and in this case I am disinclined to argue — for the reasons already described — that I am not to some degree a captive of them. Insofar as I am aware of my built-in resistance to certain ideas and conclusions, I do try to push back against it, but it would do no good to claim I am always or even most of the time successful.

Complicating this is the fact I’ve written a lot of polemic, which by its nature demands the simultaneous consideration of all sides and the taking of a definite, one-sided position. Here is a representative example of how a polemic is written, and the propaganda function it invariably serves. I’ve had occasion to write about crimes committed for religious reasons, by persons professing strong attachment to a particular creed. Would it be more or less honest to begin an assessment of religious motivated violence with a compensatory meditation on the tithe and the other many good deeds of so many religious people? Perhaps more, and yet I feel such observations to be irrelevant, for reasons that would require a separate essay. As a polemicist my intention has been (for example) to demonstrate that on balance we would be better off without religion in this world than we are with it. To achieve this I have ommitted facts, not because I feel they make my position less tenable but because I consider them peripheral concerns. To some this will be seen as dishonesty, and it is a charge which requires ongoing vigilance and self-awareness. The best service a writer can do himself is to keep up the skepticism where his motives and cherished notions are concerned. Without this, as without vigilant readers, all hope of decent writing is lost.

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